Reading the Book of Exodus, we find that there are actually two stories here. There is the one that we encounter on the page and there is the one that exists in our collective cultural memory. Reading the text, we find how often these two stories diverge—how often details we could have sworn were one way are entirely different than we had remembered.
This is the story as we remember it: When God sees the great suffering of the enslaved Israelites, He appoints Moses as His prophet and redeemer. God sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand that the Israelites be set free. Pharoah refuses, and so God sends supernatural plagues to pressure Pharoah to change his mind. Finally, after the last plague, Pharaoh relents and sets them free.
Now, the narrative as it actually is: Just as we remember, God sends forth Moses to demand that the Israelites be set free, but Pharaoh refuses, and so God sends the plagues. The purpose of the plagues, however, is not to pressure Pharoah, but to create a spectacle, to prove God’s mightiness, and to create a story that will be told for generations to come.
Pharoah nearly relents under the pressure of the plagues, but God “hardens” his heart, causing him to stay steadfast in his wickedness. This brings more plagues—more death and destruction among the Egyptians—all so that God might make a spectacle worthy of being remembered and retold for all time.
The first story is easy enough, but the second challenges us. Its moral logic is less clear and forces us to approach the text with an entirely different set of tools.
Most challenging is the matter of Pharaoh’s heart. If God has “hardened” or, in some instances, “strengthened” Pharaoh’s heart, is this to say that God violated Pharoah’s free will?
The 19th-century commentator Seforno shares this concern but understands the verse quite differently. Pharaoh’s heart has not been changed by God. Rather, it has been protected. What God did when he strengthened Pharaoh’s heart was give him the strength to withstand the pain of the plagues and persist in his desired course of action.
This is fascinating—much more so than the simpler, easier story as we all remember it—and it raises an important question. What does it mean when we say that someone has “free will?”
If it means that one is free from influence or coercion, then none of us has free will. We are all subject to countless forms of coercion that hammer away at us from within and without. Our decisions are influenced by societal pressure, pressure from friends and family, and cultural messaging. They are also influenced by circumstance, by our genetics, by our brain chemistry, and by our mood—none of which we have much say in.
We are porous. The boundary between self and world is less definite than we like to imagine. And so, similarly, is the line between “what I do” and “what happens to me.” In the final reckoning, it is all simply “what is.”
We are porous. The boundary between self and world is less definite than we like to imagine.
For this reason, many philosophers and neuroscientists of our own day are speaking out against the notion of free will. This is not to say that we are drones, nor that we must become fatalists. Only that the very concept of free will is rooted in this fallacy of the separation of self and world.
It is a fallacy held dearly by Pharoah, who believes himself and his kingdom to be completely non-porous. This is meant quite literally. Pharaoh, we are told by Rashi, only relieved himself in private on the banks of the Nile, having told his people that he, being a God, neither ate nor passed waste (Exodus 7:15).
Pharaoh, the “impermeable” king, presents himself as a discrete and totally independent entity. Perhaps he was emboldened in this folly by the national experience of the famine in the book of Genesis, when it indeed seemed that it was possible for Egypt to become, by way of surplus, a fortress impenetrable to the whims of nature and God.
By hardening Pharaoh’s heart then, God is illustrating that one should be careful what they wish for. He makes Pharaoh impenetrable to the words of Moses, the advice of his courtiers, and the duress of the plagues. Pharaoh is thus entirely free to pursue his will unfettered.
We remember that Moses said “Let My people go,” but we forget that the full line was always “Let My people go that they may worship Me [ya’avduni].” This word shares the same root, aleph-bet-daled, with the world for servant/slave/serf. It is the very root that describes the Israelites’ enslavement.
Exodus as we remember it is a simple story of an enslaved people becoming free. Exodus as we confront it on the page is a far more complex story about the meaning of freedom.
The freedom to persist in our will without contact with consequence is no prize to be desired. To be a free agent impervious to influence is not to be free, but rather to be a slave to the tyrannical dictates of the “self.”
Much better to be a part of the world, to be mixed up in it, to be porous. To be so means that we are capable of change, of being confronted by the other, of being addressed by God. To be so means we are capable of teshuvah—repentance—and real transformation.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.